“Louis Dudek is a legend for me” Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen & Louis Dudek

Louis Dudek, who reigned as Canada’s premier man of letters until his death in 2001, was Leonard Cohen’s Literature professor at McGill University. It was his McGill Poetry Series for Contact Press that published Leonard’s first book, Let Us Compare Mythologies.

Leonard described Dudek as one of the most important people he met in college:1

 

What was the importance of the people you met in college?

I met some very nice people, in particular, 3 men. Louis Dudek, Hugh MacLennan, a Canadian author who died last year,2 and Irving Layton, who didn’t go to school with me but was a writer in town.3 We would organize parties or little get-togethers with women. Professors were always there; there were no barriers, no master/student relationships. They liked our girlfriends (laughs). They were in their 30s or 40s; they liked the people we brought to their parties.

 

Were those 3 men influential to your relationship with literature and poetry?

The fraternal aspect was most important. They gave me friendship, their time, the feeling of belonging to some kind of community.4 It was like a period of mutual apprenticeship where we all read our poems to one another. Training was intense, rigorous, taken very seriously but the atmosphere was friendly. Once in awhile there were tears; someone would leave in a rage, we would argue but interest in the art of writing was at the center of our friendship …

 

Did you consider your professors as people who you should learn from?

These men were so generous that they helped me to become secure with myself. Looking back, their generosity astounds me… But as far as my work goes, I don’t think those men influenced me. I was touched by them…

 

Was it a passion for the art of writing in general or particularly for the poetic form?

For the poetic form, even if some of them wrote books or stories. What we would consider the most advanced form of human expression was poetry. Dudek has his own personal conception of poetry but he didn’t impose it upon his students. He couldn’t have. Those things have no weight, no value. There was nothing to gain. Not even publication. We would publish our own books ourselves with a stencil. Aside from the futile dreams of planetary domination of every poet, the ambition of our small group was limited: put out a few books, distribute them to a few bookstores. Our group was quite ferocious. When you read your work it was in your best interest to be ready to defend it! “Why that word? That’s shit!” (laughs)… That was our life, our life was poetry. Ideology had absolutely no importance. There was a type of aesthetic, never really defined: of confession, of modern language, of strong images, of authority in music. It was not at all academic. The poetry that they taught us in high school in Montreal, was a poetry made up of English influences that had nothing to do with our way of speaking. The academic establishment was still influenced by the romantic poetry of the 19th century, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth; only once in awhile did we look at Eliot or Arden, but even those were English or wrote in English rhythms. We were interested in creating a language closer to us, closer to our rhythms, that spoke to our own towns and our own lives.

 

The story that Louis Dudek, poet, literary critic, founder of Contact Press, a publisher of poetry, McGill Professor of Modern Poetry, and the man Robin Blaser called “Canada’s most important—that is to say, consequential modern voice,” knighted a kneeling Leonard Cohen “Poet” with one of Cohen’s manuscripts rolled-up into a suitable dubbing sword may be apocryphal,5 but it is nonetheless emblematic of both individuals.

A final quotation from Leonard Cohen summarizes his feelings toward Dudek:

 

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A sweet man, I never saw rancor in him; even his cynical moments were disinterested. One never felt he had an axe to grind. Dudek’s style of teaching, his casualness appealed to me. He was always full of encouragement. He was generous with his time, and people who thought poetry was the most important thing gravitated to him. We sat at a long table with Dudek at the head. Frequently, lost in thought, he would lean so far back in his chair we thought he’d fall right over! He would either be reading Pound or discussing Yeats’ spiritual system. His greatest contribution to Canadian writing is his sense of responsibility. Yes, Louis Dudek is a legend for me – and an important figure at a certain moment of my life. His example always is inspiring; his personal presence as a teacher and a man. All his students love him.6

 

Leonard Cohen

 

 

Also See Louis Dudek, After Reading A Leonard Cohen Poem: “I told him his sex life was no longer a secret”

The Leonard Cohen Reading List

Louis Dudek is the latest entry to the Authors Leonard Cohen Admired Without Denoting A Specific Work section of The Original Leonard Cohen Reading List, a compilation of readings admired by the Canadian singer-songwriter.

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on AllanShowalter.com (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted Oct 23, 2015.

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  1. Comme Un Guerrier by Christian Fevret (Throat Culture magazine, 1992) []
  2. Re Hugh MacLennan, see “If Roshi had been a professor of Astrophysics at Heidelberg I would have learned German and studied Astrophysics. I was interested in the man and I still am.” Leonard Cohen Focuses On The Person Not His Subject []
  3. Re Irving Layton, see “There was Irving Layton, and then there was the rest of us….Alzheimer’s could not silence him, and neither will death.” Leonard Cohen Talks About Losing His Friend Irving Layton – 2006 []
  4. An indication that the friendship between Dudek and Cohen superseded the professor-student relationship comes from a fellow McGill student, Ruth R. Wisse, who wrote “I believe it was Louis who introduced me to Leonard; certainly it was because of Leonard that I began to call my teacher Louis. Still an undergraduate in the English department — and reputed to have failed his third try at then-compulsory Latin — Leonard did not treat his teacher with my kind of deference but more like a colleague, on equal terms. Louis seemed to prefer it that way.” (Source: My Life Without Leonard Cohen By Ruth R. Wisse. Commentary, October 1, 1995.) []
  5. Faculty Of Arts: McGill University Resolution On The Death Of Emeritus Professor Louis Dudek (3 May 2001) []
  6. Louis Dudek: A Biographical Introduction by Susan Strumberg-Stein. Dundum: Jan 1, 1983 []

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